Journalists have to ask familiar questions, when 'religious' people turn to violence

There are so many questions to ask, and all of them need asking as journalists probe the "why" question in the "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" of the Austin bombings.

First things first. As Bobby Ross Jr. noted earlier (please see that post), 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt grew up in an intensely Christian home and he has expressed views that can -- in some sense of this vague word -- be called "conservative." He was active in a small, racially diverse church and then in a popular megachurch.

Well, the prodigal Texan in me wants to note that quite a few people in Texas go to church, even in the Austin area. Lots of them go to megachurches, since many things in Texas -- as you may have heard -- tend to be big.

Also, lots of people in Texas are committed to home-schooling their children. As with any form of intense education, some children like that more than others.

I say all of this to make one point: Journalists need to investigate all of these religion angles because this young man's faith -- or his loss of faith --  may turn out to be crucial. Most of all, law officials seem to be focusing on finding the source of the pain, anger and "darkness" that seized Conditt's life in the days, weeks or months leading up to the bombings.

Where would you start, reading between the lines in this passage from the main Associated Press report?

Conditt’s family said in a statement they had “no idea of the darkness that Mark must have been in.” ...

Jeff Reeb, a neighbor of Conditt’s parents in Pflugerville for about 17 years, said he watched Conditt grow up and that he always seemed “smart” and “polite.” Reeb, 75, said Conditt and his grandson played together into middle school and that Conditt regularly visited his parents, whom Reeb described as good neighbors.

Conditt attended Austin Community College from 2010 to 2012 and was a business administration major, but he did not graduate, according to college spokeswoman Jessica Vess. She said records indicate that no disciplinary actions were made against Conditt.

Although he worked for a time at an area manufacturing company, Gov. Greg Abbott told KXAN-TV in Austin that Conditt apparently was unemployed more recently and had no criminal record.

Conditt left little discernable trace on social media.

I was struck by this comment, from Jeremiah Jensen, a friend of Conditt's who shared some of his church ties.

Jensen said “the kind of hate that he succumbed to” was not what Conditt believed in during high school. “I don’t know what happened along the way,” Jensen said.

Jensen said Conditt had attended regular church services at Austin Stone Community Church but he didn’t know if Conditt “held onto his faith.” A spokesman for the church said no records of past engagement or past involvement by Conditt were found.

So where do we go from here, in terms of journalism basics?

In the past, your GetReligionistas have stressed that journalists need to ask the same kinds of questions and seek the same kinds of information whenever there is a chance that a person's faith may -- in some way -- have been linked to violence.

Let's flash back to 2011, and the horrors in Norway, where a terrorist professed his own bizarre mixture of an edited version of Christianity and myths of a pure, undefiled European culture. I wrote, at that time:

In terms of the religion angle of this story, what are journalists looking for? I would say they are seeking the exact kinds of facts and leads that they would be seeking if this person was alleged to be a radical Muslim. We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.
Also, follow the money. ... To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

In this case, it's clear that there are questions about the CURRENT state of Conditt's faith and involvement in a specific faith community. If this young man lost his faith, what took its place -- in terms of the ideas and information in his head?

Think about this for a moment: I have heard more than a few parents who home-schooled their children say that this method of education may have helped their children avoid many forms of peer and cultural pressure. However, many home-schooling systems also require students to spend hours in work online, opening a door into the complex and often chaotic world of the Internet. It is very hard for parents to know where those digital pathways can lead.

Maybe Conditt avoided many popular forms of social media. But were there other forums or sources that took the place of his previous life in church and Christian fellowship? You know that this is one angle that officials are investigating.

Other than discussing his bomb-making skills, what DID Conditt say in that final message on his smartphone? Was there any religious content? Political content? Officials are still saying that they see no signs of a motive. We will see.

In conclusion, let me point readers to a 2003 article at Poynter.org -- written by journalism educator Aly Colon -- that I have recommended several times over the years.

The headline: "Preying Presbyterians?" It focused on coverage of an anti-abortion activist who, after being pushed out of the pro-life movement, had turned to violence. This man was, at one point, a "Presbyterian minister" of some kind. Colon wrote:

As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain.

So when I see the word "Presbyterian," I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as "Catholic," "Episcopalian," "Christian," "Hindu," "Jew," "Mormon," "Hindu," "Buddhist," "Muslim," or "Pagan." ... 

When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects, or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe.

We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.

Read it all. Sadly, this material is relevant -- once again.

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